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Stem Cells Back in Political Spotlight
Issue Is Key in Wisconsin's Gubernatorial Election

By David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006

MADISON, Wis. -- From the back patio of his official residence here, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle can look across Lake Mendota to the campus of the University of Wisconsin and see a forest of construction cranes at the medical research complex and the new Institute of Discovery. Doyle calls the facilities "the epicenter of the world's work on embryonic stem cells."

Those cells may offer hope for curing crippling diseases, but at the moment, they are also at the center of an impassioned political debate, one that will occupy the Senate this summer and may provoke President Bush's first veto. It is an issue that may swing the outcome of Doyle's reelection race and a U.S. Senate contest in Missouri, where a stem cell research referendum is on the ballot.

University of Wisconsin scientists were the first to isolate embryonic stem cells, and the state, the alumni association and private firms have invested millions in building facilities and attracting scientists to work here. Doyle said in an interview that stem-cell-based bioscience will become, in time, "a $100 billion enterprise" and that his goal is to capture 10 percent of the bounty for his state.

But Doyle faces a difficult campaign, after four contentious years in office, against U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a personable Republican who points to polls suggesting that a majority of Wisconsin residents "think this great state is sliding, that its best days are behind us," even though its economy looks healthier than that of neighboring Michigan.

Green, a protege of Tommy G. Thompson, the popular former Republican governor and U.S. secretary of health and human services, is trying to present himself as a Thompson-style pragmatist who will reenergize the state.

But where Thompson, like Doyle, is an outspoken advocate of embryonic stem cell research, Green has voted to ban work on cells donated by fertility clinics or created from embryos in medical labs. The fourth-term House member supports Bush's policy of limiting work to the relatively few cell lines created before a 2001 executive order setting forth terms for government-funded research.

"I was in the Congress that doubled funding for the National Institutes of Health, the funding that actually helped create the national stem cell bank in Madison," Green said in an interview. "I'm excited about stem cell research. But I don't believe we have to leave our moral compass behind in pursuing the promise of stem cell research."

But Doyle has called Green "a relentless opponent of stem cell research," pointing to eight votes in which he says Green "tried to ban or even criminalize proven methods of stem cell research."

A similar debate is taking place in Missouri, where supporters of stem cell research have placed on the ballot an initiative protecting all forms of the research permitted by federal law. Republican Sen. James M. Talent has come out against it, while state Auditor Claire McCaskill, his Democratic challenger, favors it. The two are in a very close race, and early polls show majority support for the initiative.

In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled legislature has placed on the ballot two initiatives designed to pull out conservative voters -- one reinforcing the ban on same-sex marriage and extending it to civil unions, the other an advisory referendum to reinstate the death penalty.

Doyle opposes both, and is hoping that the stem cell issue will motivate his supporters. The issues that Green says he will emphasize in his campaign are taxes and jobs, plus some issues of gambling and corruption new to Wisconsin. Doyle was the beneficiary of an independent expenditure campaign in his last race by some Indian tribes with casinos, and he signed contracts giving the tribes expanded gaming licenses in perpetuity -- authority that the state supreme court later overruled.

As for scandal, four legislative leaders of both parties have been convicted of various crimes, and last month a mid-level career employee was found guilty of handing a contract to a Doyle donor.

Last week, the battle heated up as an independent committee supporting Doyle ran a radio ad accusing Green of voting for benefits for Big Oil. An independent group backing Green replied with a TV ad linking Doyle to the convicted procurement officer.

In an interview, Doyle noted that testimony at the officer's trial showed he had never met her or talked with her about the contract.

Nonetheless, Democrats acknowledge that Doyle will face a tough race. Four years ago, when he was attorney general, he edged out Republican Scott McCallum, who had inherited the job from Thompson. Doyle had only 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race in which Thompson's brother, Ed Thompson, captured 10 percent as a third-party candidate.

"He hasn't been able to get over 45 percent in any poll since then," Green said.

Other Wisconsin Democrats privately attribute Doyle's political problems to his personal style. A moderate who has presented himself as pro-business, he has not developed fervent support among teachers, minorities or liberals, the backbone of the state's Democratic Party.

"He has to worry about the turnout in any of those core groups," said one Democratic insider.

Green, on the other hand, faces some challenges of his own. In the election of 1998, he was the only GOP challenger in the country to defeat a Democratic incumbent, but he has had a low profile on Capitol Hill and is little known outside his own Green Bay-Appleton area in the Fox River Valley of east-central Wisconsin.

Green has an unusual personal history. His physician father and nurse-midwife mother emigrated from South Africa. After college and law school, Green and his bride spent a year teaching in Kenya. "That was the formative year of my life," he said, and set him on the path of politics and public service.

The stakes in the race are big -- and go beyond stem cells. Republicans already control the legislature and have forced Doyle to veto measures on taxes and social policy, which are likely to become law if Green were to win.

But one Democrat who otherwise paints a gloomy picture of Doyle's prospects remarked: "If he can make this a case of the Republicans being know-nothings who are opposed to science and progress, it might really hurt Green with suburban independents. Green doesn't fit the stereotype, but people don't know much about him yet."

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